ITHACA, N.Y. –– Monday afternoon officials from the City of Ithaca, Tompkins County and the Center for Policing Equity presented their findings and recommendations for local law enforcement reform after a months-long joint process of research, surveying the public and expert discussion dubbed the “Reimagining Public Safety Collaborative.”

The new law enforcement reform recommendations, which notably include a reorganization of IPD called the “Community Solutions and Public Safety Department” and the retirement of the IPD SWAT vehicle, come on the heels of a state-wide mandate requiring each local government to adopt a policing reform plan to “maintain public safety while building mutual trust and respect between police and the communities they serve.”

The draft report and supplemental materials, which can be found at this link, will be received by both the City of Ithaca Common Council and Tompkins County Legislature and will serve as a jumping-off point for concrete change. Now in the hands of local government, the proposed changes to the status quo seem to leave out law enforcement leaders as Ithaca Police Chief Dennis Nayor and Tompkins County Sheriff Derek Osborne were noticeably absent from Monday’s press conference accompanying the release. Both were deeply involved in the information gathering and feedback portion of the collaborative.

“We think this is the beginning step to a longer stairwell for us. Conversations we’ve had have been really difficult and challenging. We’re challenging the norm a lot of times and past practice to try to reimagine what things look like in the future and how marginalized communities have been compromised or negatively impacted through actions of our public safety department or public safety services,” said County Administrator Jason Molino on Monday.

Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick added, “this work is only just beginning. This document is going to be a living document and the implementation ahead of us will require continued input from everybody in the community. So this report is not a period or an exclamation mark, but more like a semicolon towards a continued process where we can continue to find tools and come up with even more recommendations.”

The recommendations laid out in the nearly 100-page draft report will have to be finalized for adoption by the April 1, 2021 deadline outlined in Governor Cuomo’s Executive Order. Some changes though may come sooner.

“I think the recommendations we put forward are very meaningful,” Molino said. “And I think they’re also going to create a lot of good dialogue to determine what’s the best path forward as both our elected bodies, the Legislature and Common Council, look to adopt these plans by the end of the month.”

Of the recommendations likely to be instituted first is the appointment of a civilian Director of Public Safety to guide the rest of the implementation process. After that, the establishment of a “Community Justice Center” (CJC) to implement the recommendations and engage community members will follow. The CJC will hire new staff and attempt to ease a transition from the current policing model to a reformed one while minimizing gaps in service.

“It’s too hard to try and put together a plane while flying it. (…) What we’re trying to do is continue flying one that’s a police department, while we custom build another one,” Myrick said.

On top of the creation of a new leadership role and the establishment of the CJC, other recommendations include the aforementioned retirement of the IPD SWAT vehicle, new community oversight measures, overhauled curriculum and a renamed and restructured “public safety” department amongst other things. Many of the recommendations included in the draft report include adding additional staff, technology or training –– all of which carry a price tag, though it is still unclear what the budget for the reimaging may be or where that money will come from.

Here are some of the notable recommendations from the report:

Also still unclear is what exactly the new Community Solutions and Public Safety Department may look like but some of the suggestions outlined in the report include retaining “a unit of armed, uniformed first responders called Community Safety Officers” and adding “a unit of unarmed first responders called Community Solutions Officers.” Additionally, the new department may look to collaborate with other human service providers and “take a leadership role in the implementation of a Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program.”

Despite the seemingly major overhaul of both the Ithaca Police Department and a major increase to the workflow of the Sheriff’s Department, neither Chief Dennis Nayor or Sheriff Derek Osborne were in attendance at Monday’s announcement.

Osborne said he was unaware of the event.

“I love being the Sheriff for our community and I feel honored for the trust that I have received from the community in allowing me to serve them in this capacity. I wish I had been provided more of an opportunity to put my experience and knowledge towards the recommendations,” he said.

Nayor echoed the sentiment. Though the plan actually calls for more overall resources being allocated to public safety efforts, he did not endorse the final reform package in a statement to The Ithaca Voice. He said he was not aware that a news conference had been scheduled for the document’s release but would have spoken if invited.

“I have been fully involved with the entire Reimagining of Public Safety efforts from the very beginning and I even delayed my upcoming retirement so that I could see the project through to completion,” Nayor said. “As a police chief who has dedicated his entire professional life to providing quality public safety, yes, I am very concerned about the magnitude of the recommended changes that have been brought forward. (…) We all agree that police cannot, and should not, do everything and that as a society we have to find ways to properly address the key plights of homelessness, addiction, and mental illness to name just a few. We do however need to have the necessary means available in terms of staffing, resources, and support to deter and respond to crime, and to keep our community safe. Recommendations as radical as what is proposed will cause great concern for any police chief and I truly hope that further conversation can occur before such sweeping changes are implemented.”

Law enforcement were not the only ones who felt their voices were not heard or reflected in the recommendation draft report. Since the beginning of the process last Spring, the effort has been criticized for not adequately capturing the community’s feelings, including people of color in Ithaca and Tompkins County and those struggling with homelessness or addiction –– populations most at risk for negative interactions with police.

While applauding the fact that outreach efforts were made, Dr. Tracie Keesee of the Center for Policing Equity added, “I may be remiss if I didn’t mention the fact that we have some folks that just didn’t trust in this process.” She continued, adding that additional opportunities for public comment will shape this first draft of recommendations.

“And so, what we hope from this is that moving forward, once we have this public conversation, that 30 or 40 days as it goes to council and legislators, that they have a real robust public conversation about what it means to provide equitable public safety,” Keesee said.

In that vein, the Collaborative is seeking community input in the form of reactions, feedback and questions. Community members are encouraged to share their input through an online form here, mail (c/o RPS Collaborative, 125 E. Court St, Ithaca N.Y. 14850), local drop boxes (City Hall, 108 E. Green St, Ithaca, or County Offices, 125 E. Court St, Ithaca), or via voicemail at 607-274-5465.

A public forum outlining the draft recommendations and answering questions from the community will be held Thursday, Feb. 25, at 6:30 p.m. on the Tompkins County YouTube channel. Members of the public who would like to ask a question live can register for the Zoom webinar here.

More information on the Reimagining Public Safety Process can be found online here.

“The results from this process are clear –– we need a new form of public safety delivery. It is possible to have more equitable outcomes and to look at things in a new way. I’m confident that we’re putting forth recommendations that will greatly enhance the community’s health and safety.” Myrick said regarding the challenge ahead. “A new Department of Community Solutions and Public Safety, built from the ground up, will make this city a safer place to live for every Ithacan.”

Anna Lamb

Anna Lamb is a reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at alamb@ithacavoice.com